Monthly Archives: October 2011

Bitter-Sweet is Better than Sweet Alone. (Especially in Autumn)

Ever wonder why we Northwesterners crave coffee more furiously than usual with the first few cold and rainy days of fall? I would argue that aside from the culture associated with drinking coffee, we begin to crave the combination of warmth with the delicious bitterness of a “damn fine cup of coffee”, “black as the sky on a moonless night.”

(I had to use Twin Peaks' Agent Cooper here, of course)

More specifically, the bitter taste of coffee helps to signal our bodies’ immune system to activate, while creating a “contractive” and “descending” energy that naturally occurs as the days get shorter, plants go dormant, animals hibernate, and humans create routines involving hot coffee, blankets, couches, and favorite warm companions (animal or human).  In Chinese Medicine theory, the Yin-within-Yang of Autumn transforms into the Yin-within-Yin of Winter, and bitterness brings the last bits of Yang back into the Yin. That was a mouthful, but you can imagine an over-tired but excited child in the evening, giggling herself to sleep. This reflects the idea of the last bit of Yang energy finally transforming into Yin.

Coffee is interesting in our culture; although it is bitter, it also has the stimulant property of caffeine (and potentially the rush of sugar and the inflammatory endorphin response of milk or cream, for you naturopaths out there) and should therefore be used in moderation during the winter. I prefer an espresso with a dollop of cream- in my opinion a couple mouthfuls of the perfect beverage. But that’s enough fangirl language for one blog post. I have to make some room in my diet for the fabulous health benefit of the bitter taste in many different forms.

Because of the paucity of the bitter flavor in the “Standard American Diet (SAD),” I try to encourage myself and others to throw in a small amount of bitter into a couple meals per day. I’m no chef and couldn’t accurately explain the alchemy that occurs when the five flavors combine in beautiful harmony, but I do know that bitter can be important to add depth or to offset the commonly-prominent flavors of sweet and salty. Now consider the following health benefits of including bitter along with the sweet in your life.

Drinking Chocolate can be extremely bitter as well. YUM! Via Andy Ciordia on flickr.

The bitter flavor helps lower cholesterol and reduces inflammation. It helps your liver recover from large amounts of rich (fatty, greasy, sugary… delicious) food. Chen writes: “Herbs distinguished by the bitter taste have been found to stimulate the nervous system and increase production of gastric acid. Therefore, a small quantity of bitter herbs taken before meals will increase appetite and improve digestion.(15)” He cautions to take bitter herbs in small quantities, because too much bitter flavor can have the the opposite effect, inducing nausea and vomiting (15).

Autumn is an especially important time to imbibe the bitter taste (at least in Portland and other rainy places), due to its beneficial effect on drying dampness which can accumulate in the body as sinus drainage, mucous, head colds, and the flu. Bitter can help relieve coughing and wheezing, and it “purges fire to treat various infections accompanied by elevated body temperature.(15)” One must be cautious of taking too much bitter taste during a cold or fever, because it can “dry out” the body, weakening the tissues’ ability to be nourished. So bitter is a powerful ally; treat it with care, say hello often but for short periods of time, add a splash of bitters to your cocktail or your tea with honey, and it will serve you well as a loyal protector during the traditional flu season.

Bitter Melons, looking extra green and prickly! Via Cameron Maddux at flickr.

Bitter melon in particular helps fight infections and it has the added benefit of aiding in blood sugar stabilization. It is especially effective in treating all kinds of cysts, abscesses, skin problems and swellings, parasites, candida yeast overgrowth, and mucous of various types including that of the lungs and sinuses. Bitter melon tea is excellent for preventing colds, losing weight and improving digestion! I believe everyone would be using it if it tasted better, but there is no shortcut here… only small amounts of honey and the wonderful power of the human body to become accustomed to new experiences. Ironically, humans in paleolithic times ate a diet of primarily bitter foods, which is why we love sweet and salty so much today – salt and sugar were scarce so we needed to detect and gain pleasure from even tiny quantities of these tastes.

If you feel inspired to use bitter melon in the kitchen, here is one recipe that I can vouch for as a beginner in the realm of both cooking and in tolerating the bitter flavor. This salad is easy to make, and it really tones down the bitterness while balancing it with other flavors. This Thai dish is also rich with fruits and veggies that provide their own slew of health benefits for the flu season!

Ingredients for Green Mango Bitter Melon Salad Flavor Attack:

4 Baby Bok Choy, briefly wilted, drained, and shredded

1 Tbsp Safflower oil (or other high-heat cooking oil)

1/2 to 1 whole bitter melon (Chinese variety), halved, deseeded, and sliced thinly

1 Large or 2 Small Leeks, Sliced thinly

1 Hefty Cucumber, Julienned

1 Fresh Green Mango, Julienned (except for seed of course)

1/4 C Fresh Cilantro Leaves

Roasted Cashews for Garnish

Delicious green mangos! Via hozinja at flickr.


1 Tbsp Roasted Sesame Oil

2 Tbsp Fish Sauce

1/2 C Sweet Chili Sauce (Mae Ploy brand if possible)

1 Tbsp Fresh Lime Juice

Maybe a touch of rice vinegar or ponzu sauce to taste.

Prepare all ingredients.

1. Wash bok choy; throw into heated iron skillet (no oil) to steam in its own washing water for 1-2 min. Remove to colander; press out some of the remaining water, and shred or chop into large pieces.

2. In same iron skillet, pour the Tbsp Safflower Oil, let it heat to medium temp.  Add bitter melon slices and leek slices; saute until tender (3-5 min).

3. Whisk together the dressing ingredients in a small bowl.

4. In a large bowl, combine all of the vegetables except cilantro.  Toss with dressing.

***This can be refrigerated overnight to reduce the bitterness of the melon.  Giving the flavors time to meld increases its deliciousness!!!***

5. When ready to serve, chop cilantro and fold into salad.  Sprinkle cashews over top, and serve!  Enjoy with rice for a healthy meal.

Original recipe taken from Asian Kitchen Recipes. I have modified it slightly.

I’m always looking for more ways to cook with this and other bitter ingredients- please tell me below if you have had success with other recipes!


Simple Autumn Tea

Oatstraw, Elder Flower, Wild Mugwort, Nettle

Here’s my version of fortifying tea for autumn.

3 parts oatsraw,

3 parts nettle,

2 parts elderflower,

1 part mugwort (or 1/2 part white sage).

This tea tastes delicious even without the help of sweeteners.

If you’re feeling fancy, you can add 1 tsp to 1 Tbsp of the following: either raw honey, elderberry mead, or elderberry syrup, plus a dash of whiskey or brandy if one is extremely chilled.

Some info can be found below regarding the individual constituents. I chose this particular blend because it can be taken every day to fortify the nervous system and nourish blood, while at the same time it helps to cleanse the blood and lymphatic system. It is very warming during cold weather. It contains many vitamins and minerals, and it prevents the progression of colds or flus that may sneak up over the course of the season. It is perfect for taking in a thermos out mushroom hunting. And it makes me feel happy!

Give it a try and let me know how it goes!

Quick herb info below:

Oatstraw: From Local Harvest’s Herbalist, Sharon Hubbs-Kreft, Herbalist – Amazing Grace Herbals LLC.

Field of oats, copyright Rob Farrow

Oat Straw is rich in calcium and magnesium. It can be used for both physical and nervous fatigue and is helpful for depression. Oatstraw also contains B-complex vitamins, silicia, calcium, flavones, saponins, and Vitamin A.

Oatstraw has been found to be an excellent toner for the whole system. Oat Straw is useful for thyroid and estrogen deficiency, for MS, osteoporosis, appetite loss, anorexia, urinary concerns, colds and chills and to encourage sweating. It’s secondary uses are boils, weak bones, bursitis, constipation, gallbladder, kidney problems, liver disorders, pancreatic concerns, rheumatism, and some skin conditions.

This herb increases internal heat, dispels internal chill and strengthens metabolism and circulation, relieves symptoms of depression, prevents and relieves spasms, softens and soothes damaged or inflamed surfaces such as the gastric mucous membranes, strengthens functional activity of the nervous system, helps with the process of assimilating food and has the property of nourishing, and restores, nourishes, and supports the entire body; it exerts a gently strengthening effect on the body.

Oatstraw is not a quick fix herb, it is an herb that can be quite effective if used on a regular basis over time. Every person and every situation is different, but a general guideline could be to drink two to three cups of infusion, three or four times a week. It is slow to act in the system but has a long lasting effect.

This tea may be used with the following Bach Flowers Essences for anxiety: A dose is 1-4 drops, taken as needed. Aspen (anxious about the future); Mimulus (anxious about the past); Red Chestnut (anxious about the safety of others); Elm (overwhelming anxiety); Rock Rose (anxiety that escalates into panic).

Oatstraw may also be added to the bath to help relieve overall nervous body tensions and combines well with Lemon Balm for this purpose.

Elder flower: Traditionally treats colds. It also has a diuretic and diaphoretic action when taken in concentrated doses. It helps warm the person who feels chilled yet has a fever, especially when consumed as hot as possible. It can also help relieve sore throat.

Elder flower, copyright Trish Steel

From Local Harvest’s Valley View Ranch – Healing Land:

The detoxification of the body is also achieved by taking the herbal remedies made from the flowering tops of the elder flowers. [This] remedy promotes perspiration and the production of urine in the affected individual. [As] a general remedy, the flowering tops of the elder aid the rapid elimination of metabolic waste products from the body – for this reason, arthritis patients often receive great benefits by taking the remedy.

Elderberry (in Mead): From Local Harvest’s Valley View Ranch – Healing Land:

Elderberries. Beautiful image courtesy oceandesetoiles at flickr.

The berries make an excellent home-made wine and winter cordial, which improves with age, and taken hot with sugar, just before going to bed, is an old-fashioned and well established cure for a cold.

The berries from contain a large amount of vitamins A, B and C, as well as flavonoids, sugar, tannins, carotenoids and amino acids. Warmed wine is a remedy for sore throat, influenza and induces perspiration to reverse the effects of a chill. The juice from the berries is an old fashioned cure for colds, and is also said to relieve asthma and bronchitis.

Infusions of the fruit are beneficial for nerve disorders, back pain, and have been used to reduce inflammation of the urinary tract and bladder. Raw berries have laxative and diuretic properties, however the seeds are toxic and may induce vomiting and nausea.

The herbal elder berry tea can be drunk twice every day of the treatment period.

Stinging Nettle: I already posted a page about harvesting nettles, but there are a ton of reasons why one should drink them regularly as tea.
From Local Harvest’s Herbalist, Sharon Hubbs-Kreft, Herbalist – Amazing Grace Herbals LLC:

Stinging Nettle, courtesy Annie&John on flickr.

Nettles have a long history of use in the home as a herbal remedy and nutritious addition to the diet. The Nettle has long been valued as a medicinal and nutritional treasure.

Nettle is rich in chlorophyll, and a good source of beta carotene; vitamins A, C, and E; tannins; iron; calcium; silicon; potassium; phosphates; and various other minerals. Rich in iron vital to circulation and helpful in high blood pressure.

Nettle leaf has recently become a popular treatment for allergies based on one preliminary study. Nettle leaf is highly nutritious, and in cooked form may be used as a general dietary supplement.

It is said that the “sting of the nettle is but nothing compared to the pains that it heals”.

Nettle is safe to administer during pregnancy and helps to keep the blood rich and used if anemia occurs during pregnancy.

Wild Mugwort: I wildcrafted this herb at the peak of summer in Montana, on a sunny, dry hillside in the Rockies. Drinking this tea reminds me of the beautiful warmth, comfort, and calm of the sunny hillside, and it helps dispel the cold, damp, dark Portland winter blues. Some actions attributed to mugwort: regulates female hormonal cycles, cleans the blood, combats asthma, stimulates digestion, and relieves bloating. It is considered antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, antispasmodic, carminative, diaphoretic, diuretic and haemostatic.